January 19, 2006

A prescriptivist rant? Get a clue

I was astonished to find my musings about why people people call common abbreviations acronyms described at the excellent copy-editor's blog Tongue Tied as a "thoroughly prescriptivist rant". "Pullum pounced", it says, as if I was some wild carnivorous beast; "what's with the complainin' 'n' prescribin' act?", it asked (in the original form of the post, now slightly revised), as if I had howled for vengeance and laid down ukases. I mean, really! I said, very calmly, "It's funny that people get this wrong" (about calling something like FTBSITTTD an acronym), and went on to note what acronyms and abbreviations have in common: they are both what The Cambridge Grammar calls initialisms — words formed anomalously from lists of initial letters. And that is supposed to be a rant? Only to someone who has never seen me rant.

I've noted before that with popular beliefs about language it's all "Everything is correct" versus "nothing is relevant". Two extremes, no sensible middle. Let me say it again, as clearly as I can, in boldface this time: It is not inconsistent for a linguist to note that somebody used a word with a meaning that it does not standardly have. Even a "descriptivist" professor of linguistics like me is perfectly entitled to the the view that comprise means "comprise", i.e., "embrace" or "include"; it doesn't mean "compose" or "jointly make up" (despite a century of evidence of people confusing comprise and compose — and again, it's psycholinguistically interesting that these two words are confused with each other whereas red and green are not). And likewise, acronyms standardly denotes the initialisms that can be pronounced like words rather than lists of letter names (hence the apology offered by Slate magazine for wrongly calling FTBSITTTD an acronym). Why would anyone think that because I'm a linguistic scientist I have to pretend nobody ever misuses any words?

Tongue Tied is quite right, though, to point out that Webster's actually lists "abbreviation" as a second meaning of acronym (after an "also"). The Webster's practice is helpful to dictionary users: it enables a reader to figure out what some people mean when they say "acronym". That's good. And paying attention to me will enable you to understand why "abbreviation" is only given as a secondary meaning, and why The Cambridge Grammar uses its terms the way it does. You need to understand both that "abbreviation" is not the original or standard meaning (the American Heritage Dictionary, Tongue Tied notes, does not give that as a meaning for acronym) and that lots of people believe otherwise.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 19, 2006 09:24 AM